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Taming the President of Pride
Here’s what Hobbes and Locke can tell us about Trump.
Speculating about U.S. President Donald Trump’s psychology has become both a national pastime and a matter of serious public interest. As a private citizen and then as president, Trump has been unusually thin-skinned, reacting explosively to perceived slights about the size of his hands, the crowd at his inauguration, and the viewership for his State of the Union address. In his book Fear, the journalist Bob Woodward paints a portrait of a president who is obsessed with his own television coverage, who conflates perceived failures of personal loyalty with treason against the state, and who is determined to avoid the appearance of weakness at any cost.
The popular diagnosis of Trump is that he is a pathological narcissist. But this characterization may obscure more than it reveals. It also doesn’t quite capture what’s at stake politically. Trump’s unusual behavior is better captured by an older and more venerable term: vainglory. The great 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that vainglorious citizens make treacherous subjects. But it would fall to John Locke, writing a generation later, to show why vainglorious leaders make such terrifying rulers.
Writing during Britain’s bloody civil war, which lasted from 1642 to 1651, Hobbes tried to understand the passions that drove people to kill each another. He concluded that among the most dangerous was vainglory—that is, the “exultation of the mind” that comes from imagining one’s own “power and ability.” When one’s imagining is based on sound self-knowledge and an accurate accounting of one’s past experience, what results is nothing more than confidence. And while the confident may occasionally be annoying at dinner parties, they don’t tend to be a danger to the state. The vainglorious are a different matter. Their self-estimation is based on poor self-knowledge compounded by “the flattery of others.” They have an unwarranted belief in their own power, and they obsessively delight in that belief.
A vainglorious person, Hobbes said, wants others to value him at “the same rate he sets upon [himself].” He will be consumed by measuring his standing relative to others and take “pleasure in contemplating [his] own power.” He will deny any signs of weakness and instead strive to dominate those around him. He will surround himself with flatterers. But because his own self-estimation is inflated and because sycophants aren’t always available, the vainglorious person will feel perpetually undervalued and dishonored. This will enrage him. He will try to extract esteem and honor through bullying, threats, and violence. Most disturbingly, he will act rashly in response to any perceived slight, picking fights that he is likely to lose.
In the 17th century, vainglorious citizens fought duels to defend their honor. Today, they strive for glory by attacking others on Twitter. Either way, it’s best to give them a wide berth.
Hobbes saw acutely the challenge of ruling over the vainglorious. They abhor dishonor more than they value their lives—and certainly more than they value the lives of others. They will readily put themselves and others at risk to defend against a perceived slight. In all likelihood, they won’t be satisfied until everyone acknowledges their power and ability. Anything less leaves them looking weak—a fate they will do virtually anything to avoid. And citizens who fear dishonor more than imprisonment or death make difficult subjects.
For one, Hobbes thought, they will be prone to crime. They are inclined to mistake their high social status for a superiority of “wit, or riches, or [blood], or some other [natural] quality.” They will think they are above the law and that the punishments generally meted out “to all Subjects, ought not to be inflicted on them.” If their inflated sense of self-worth comes from being rich, the vainglorious may hope to buy their way out of punishment “by corrupting [public] Justice, or obtaining Pardon by [money], or other rewards.”
Hobbes thought that only an absolute state, the great and terrifying Leviathan, could effectively check the vainglorious. The sovereign, as head of state, must hold them “in awe,” making them feel puny with frightening displays of power. The leader must educate the vainglorious, countering their pride with reminders of their essential vulnerability. Doing so would be one of the most critical tasks of the Leviathan state.
As closely attuned as Hobbes was to the dangers of vainglorious subjects, he was blind to the threat of vainglorious leaders. Ever a pessimist about human nature, he was an incorrigible optimist about the ennobling effects of holding public office. The sovereign, he believed, would recognize that his own interests depend on how well his people are doing: “For no King can be rich, nor glorious, nor secure; whose Subjects are either poor, or contemptible.” But this, Locke showed, is nonsense.
Like Hobbes, Locke also lived through the English civil war. But he took a radically different lesson from this battle for the heart of the state. Locke recognized Hobbes’s hopes as nothing more than the familiar false promise of absolutism. Leaders, after all, are only human. And if they happen to be vainglorious, we should expect political office to make them worse, not better. Political power can make even the best of us “licentious by impunity.” Power corrupts—and for the vainglorious, it corrupts absolutely. Power makes them even more willing to sacrifice the good of the state for the pursuit of their own honor and glory. As they strive, everybody loses.
Vainglorious rulers, Locke recognized, are vulnerable to the flattery of those around them. Rulers attract courtiers and hangers-on who are drawn to the possibilities of vicarious power. When a leader is vainglorious, flatterers have a clear strategy. They praise him or her, they abase themselves, and they belittle the ruler’s critics. And in so doing, they trick the ruler into serving their ends. This is the kind of manipulation that political vainglory invites. In monarchical Europe, courtiers used flattery to gain money, titles, and land. Today, they use it to shape national and foreign policy to their own liking and perhaps, somewhat more virtuously, to frustrate a leader’s agenda and “his worst inclinations.”
Locke’s solution to the threat of vainglorious rulers was taken up by America’s founders. First and foremost, they said, the institutions that constrain executive power should be strengthened. (Although both Locke and the founders left room—arguably too much—for unilateral executive action in cases of national emergency.) These constraining institutions are familiar because they’re the very ones that Trump has consistently sought to thwart, undermine, and discredit—the judiciary, law enforcement, Congress, and the media.
The most urgent task for Americans today, then, is not to tame the vainglorious ordinary citizens among them. Of course, the temptation to focus on one’s fellow citizens is understandable, given the rise of the incivility of public discourse and the boorishness of political discussions on social media. But the pressing job for them now is to look out for pride among their leaders. And for ordinary citizens, that means supporting the institutions that constrain the powerful. Hobbes thought that a mighty sovereign was needed to tame the vainglorious. In the United States, ordinary citizens are that sovereign, and it is up to them to do the taming.